Choice of Velasquez-Dos Santos for Fox debut is bold gamble for UFC
Cain Velasquez, Junior Dos Santos will fight for heavyweight title in UFC on Fox 1
UFC has a lot riding on this fight, and there's a very good chance it will disappoint
Casual viewers might not forgive a boring fight just because a title is at stake
For a company begotten by gambling, the UFC has made what's perhaps the bet of a lifetime in its network debut.
Dana White is all in that Cain Velasquez-Junior Dos Santos will supplant Forrest Griffin-Stephan Bonnar I as the UFC's watershed moment when it airs Nov. 12 on Fox.
"There's no doubt in my mind, and I will bet anything and everything ... that these guys are going to deliver," White said during the Fox announcement last week in Los Angeles. "I put on all the bells and whistles and do all the good stuff, and then those guys have to go in there and do their job when it's time.
"If you'll look over the past 10 years, I can count on one hand how many fights have sucked. You tell me the last time you saw Junior Dos Santos or Cain Velasquez in a boring fight. I'm literally betting everything that it's not going to happen."
The UFC president knows a gamble when he sees one. He's been convincing buttoned-down, creativity-by-committee network execs that MMA locks down the most coveted demographics in advertising. Through tireless effort, he and Zuffa executives have gotten Fox to make a long-term investment in MMA.
But in this unpredictable world, the one-fight, one-hour event is ultimately a roll of the dice. In attempting to put the best foot forward, they may do the very opposite.
While it's certainly plausible the heavyweight title tilt could be over in one hot minute -- presto, another million potential pay-per-view customers and a few thousand to join us in Internet derision -- it's just as likely that it could put great strain on the first-time viewer.
The foundation is there. Look at the skills that got champ Velasquez to where he is today, and the same for Dos Santos. Then consider the axiom that any fighter who meets adversity will always return to the stylistic origin of their combat knowledge. Then think about the natural instincts of survival and how they play out in a mixed-martial-arts fight.
It's a big risk.
Watch Velasquez's fight with Cheick Kongo at UFC 99. In less than 30 seconds, the Frenchman had concussed him with a straight right, and from that moment on he had no intention of trading punches any longer than needed to nab the takedown. Why would he? If you're him and you see a white flash and maybe a few snapshots of your childhood pass in front of your eyes, you're going to do everything in your power to get out of danger as quickly as possible. He did just that, and he went on to dominate the fight and win a decision.
But it sure wasn't must-see TV.
This isn't a pitch to pair two strikers who might speak a more universal language to the viewing audience. Grappling isn't the enemy here. The ground game is just as exciting as its standing counterpart, but only as long as it's dynamic. Plodding, positional battles aren't much fun for anybody, educated or not.
After all, this isn't just about watching MMA without having to cough up a debit card, is it? This could be a chance to sway the sport's skeptics, an opportunity to move a nebulous mass of undecideds from their skittish perches. We can all agree, we need fresh bodies. The FOX deal might be the single biggest opportunity for the UFC to elevate its domestic profile from that of a popular niche sport to the kind that gets regular coverage in newspapers and on TV -- perhaps as big as it can get for the type of activity that a sizable portion of the population finds distasteful, no matter how it's presented.
As it is, the UFC hopes to convert nonbelievers with two of the world's most dominant heavyweights in their arguable prime. They've hung their hat on prestige, the notion that championships mean something and the heavyweight championship means most in the pantheon of combat sports titles. And it's a matchup that's been begging to happen; neither fighter has lost inside the octagon.
But neither has faced such a serious threat in an opponent's primary discipline, nor under such pressure. Look at Dos Santos' body of work -- he's yet to fully be tested on the mat. A knee injury hobbled ground and pound specialist Roy Nelson when they fought at UFC 117. A barrage of early punches took Shane Carwin out of the game at UFC 131. Just about everyone said that fight would end in the first frame. And while he came close, he ultimately eased off the gas and coasted to a decision.
It would be bold and admirable for Velasquez to throw hands with the Brazilian, but it might also be foolish. The threat of rust is very real -- it will have been 13 months since his title-winning fight over Brock Lesnar when he steps in the cage. Dos Santos is surely the sharper man, but he won't offer the champ an opportunity to take him down. So more than likely, he won't come out guns blazing. That means that if the action hits the ground, as it likely will at some point, we could see the same kind of largely static fight seen at UFC 99, the very type that's hardest for the uninitiated to understand, much less appreciate.
And while UFC commentator Joe Rogan does a brilliant job of explaining the ground game, and FOX executives have tasked him with educating those on the intricate art, a fight that goes into deep waters gives him a tough job.
If you're somebody who tuned in to watch X-Factor and found a cage fight, will you forgive a snoozer because a title is at stake?
There certainly won't be any personal heat between Velasquez and Dos Santos to grease the promotional wheel, either. They keep it clean and bland on the record, and the most we'll get is a quip here or there about how one is better than the other. Chael Sonnen won't be taking notes.
So it comes down to what happens inside the cage, as it always does. The good news, of course, is that just about all can be forgiven with a good fight.
But that's far from a sure thing. Call me crazy, but the gods of MMA prove time and time again that whatever we say won't happen -- 100 percent, no way, impossible -- happens. No matter what White guarantees, there's no way of knowing whether the heavyweights will deliver at UFC on FOX 1. The promotion has made some big gambles that went south -- the three-title debacle at UFC 33 and the lightweight tournament that ended in a draw are two early ones that come to mind -- and there are some that paid off exponentially.
The indelible video of Griffin and Bonnar going toe-to-toe is the reason why we're at this point in the first place. Nobody saw that coming. And no one can predict when it will happen again.